Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Colour me yellow
I learned a long time ago not to simply look at complex legal issues in black and white. Quite often, I've found, there are many complicated shades of grey.But yellow? Well, I hadn't thought much of the colour - at least not until a Winnipeg lawyer accused me Wednesday of "yellow journalism".That's an inside term that refers to sensational, perhaps unethical and certainly irresponsible work on behalf of a reporter.And it's not an allegation I take lightly. Or appreciate, for that matter - especially when it's made on the public record in a courtroom filled with more than 100 people.
Yet Marty Minuk - a private lawyer I have all the respect in the world for who was hired by the Manitoba justice department to prosecute a Winnipeg police officer - decided to colour my reputation with a baseless cheap shot.A little background...Minuk, along with defence lawyer Richard Wolson, were figuratively called to the principal's office Wednesday morning to justify the highly controversial plea bargain they have pitched for Derek Harvey-Zenk.The former Winnipeg cop, you'll recall, pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death for the February 2005 crash that killed Crystal Taman, a 40-year-old mother of three.Despite the fact Harvey-Zenk admitted he was out drinking and partying in the hours preceding the crash - and then refused a police demand for a breathalyser - all alcohol charges were dropped by Minuk.
Without even the slightest explanation to the victim's family, the court or the public.So when it became apparent that Chief provincial court Judge Ray Wyant was having great difficultly with the suggested conditional sentence, Minuk and Wolson were summoned back to court for further submissionsBut in the few weeks which passed since the initial sentencing hearing, people have started asking questions. Especially the victim's family, who are certainly entitled to better treatment then they've received.So myself, along with some other reporters, started digging around. Some people started talking. And some answers started coming.Among the developments which I have reported on:
-Some East St. Paul police officers have accused their former chief, Harry Bakema, of ordering them in advance not to refer in their notes about Harvey-Zenk's alcohol consumption following the deadly crash. Bakema, through his lawyer, has denied the claims.-Retired RCMP officer Robert Tramley, who spearheaded a review of the East. St. Paul detachment following Bakema's firing in 2006, told me the plea bargain with Harvey-Zenk is a "travesty" and said the case should have gone to trial.-A paramedic at the scene of the deadly crash noted "a strong smell of alcohol" coming from Harvey-Zenk. That fact was included in Tramley's review.-Bakema is a former Winnipeg police officer who worked in the same North End district as Harvey-Zenk before he left to go to East St. Paul. Bakema has denied working directly with Harvey-Zenk but said he recognized him at the scene of the crash. Bakema apparently felt there were no grounds for a breath demand - even though another officer (Norm Carter, now the Chief) felt there was when he saw Harvey-Zenk NEARLY AN HOUR LATER.
-Manitoba Justice Minister Dave Chomiak has called for a full public review of the East St. Paul detachment regarding their handling of this, and other, cases.-Questions have been raised about Manitoba Justice's decision to appoint Minuk as Crown counsel, given the fact he has previously defended police officers and had recently completed work on a manslaughter case working alongside Harvey-Zenk's lawyer, Richard Wolson. Justice officials have defended the decision to farm the case out of their own department to Minuk, saying they must avoid a perception of bias given that Crowns regularly work closely with police.It is perhaps that final one which had Minuk the most upset. He has somehow confused reporting on his background and the policies of Manitoba Justice as calling his ethics into question. Nothing could be further from the truth.As you can read HERE
in my original story, I clearly stated there are no suggestions Minuk has done anything wrong and he is a well-respected lawyer. Yet the story talked about "optics" - the very reason Manitoba Justice said their own very competent staff Crowns were apparently unable to prosecute Harvey-Zenk."It wouldn't look right" is the general answer given, because the Crown often work closely with police. Never mind the fact you could easily find numerous prosecutors who'd never even met Harvey-Zenk, it was all about the appearance.And that's fine. But it's perfectly fair then to ask how the appearance of Minuk's role in the case is somehow better, given his role as a defence lawyer, close (and very recent) working relationship with Wolson and the fact he's previously represented cops.All fair questions.Yet Minuk is now up in arms. Even Wolson called the reporting "scandalous" in court on Wednesday.Scandalous??? Funny, that's a word many are using to describe the debacle the Harvey-Zenk case has become.And the case only sunk into further chaos after Wednesday.Wyant - admitting he is struggling with his decision - was practically begging both lawyers to give him more information about circumstances surrounding the crash.He even offered to pause the hearing so that Minuk could call evidence about the eight or so hours that passed between the end of Harvey-Zenk's shift and the deadly crash.Wyant was especially interested in hearing more about Harvey-Zenk's drinking that night.Seemed like a perfectly logical request - especially after you hear the Taman family say they were told at one point the Crown had 33 witnesses lined up to testify. Some of those surely had to be the other cops who were with Harvey-Zenk. And what about the paramedic at the scene?Yet Minuk rejected Wyant's offer. He didn't even consult with the Taman family. Or explain to the court why he wouldn't provide any more information. He just said 'No'.And so a clearly frustrated Wyant retreated into his chambers, saying he needs more time to mull over a case in which he candidly admits to being somewhat in the dark about, at least in terms of potentially important issues.And the Taman family was left, once again, wondering what the hell just happened. And what exactly is being hidden from them.There's no doubt Minuk, Wolson and Harvey-Zenk wish this case would have just quietly fell beneath the radar and been quickly disposed of.Thank goodness it didn't.I wish I knew all the answers. I've managed to dig up some of them, and I will continue trying to find out the rest.If that's what constitutes shoddy journalism, then colour me Yellow.Thoughts? Post them below, please and thanks.